Children On Their Own


My previous blog asked the question of , "Another word for Orphan is _____?"  I've had lots of good suggestions, but none that spoke to the experience of their solitary existence, their un-rootedness.  None seemed to be what they might say of themselves.  But there have been moments here, painful ones, when they referred to each other as " we sisters are all we have."  Some of this was in anger as in the adoptee saying to her mother, "You are not my real mom."  Both statements are actually true, but for the most part, the "children on their own" do not have adults who are committed to them as individual people.  From a purely existential point of view they are on their own.  When they are swept with internal pain and memories they sometimes as, "God, why have you brought me into this world to suffer?"  These are not dramatic expressions, rather those of the mourning wail — why did this happen to me.

When I waited for the children, after I'd gotten the house, I wrote a haiku expressing my angst in waiting, my sense of their waiting to be rescued, the sense of time dragging on and on:

Amader Meye'ra (Our Girls)

Floating in the Darkened Night

Wailing to Come Home


Orphans are children on their own, wailing…. They must be strong or they will die.  They must be strong or they will lose their sense of humanity.  They belong to everyone and no one. 

One day I was at the airport and I saw a building across the road that said, "Lost Luggage."  I thought:

Orphans, the lost and unclaimed luggage of humanity.  I saw them on the shelves, maybe picked up by those who lost them, maybe taken by someone who wants some luggage and finds the right piece, or maybe they just wait, on the shelves, in the institutions.  At a certain age they are dumped out, as room is made for more.


(C) Widgit Software 2002-2011;

This is not a nice image, but when we talk about thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of orphans around the world, they are children unclaimed, mostly untagged.  Our children with disabilities came without last names.  I gave them my name.  As for the other girls, some came with names, some with wrong names, some without names.  We had to sort this all out, or at least make decisions about names before we could put them into schools.  We had to re-tag them so they could enter the system.  (for anyone worried about whether they were still findable by family that might show up, the answer is yes.  Everything is recorded.  These children are actually very findable for anyone looking.  They come through the government system of identifying lost and abandoned children.  They were "vetted" by the government before they were given to us. 

The widgit symbols above and below are part of a system of symbolic language we are using with the children.  I love it~~~  Our website when it finally gets done will be widgit enabled so it can be "read" but people who cannot read.  .  We have written our mission statement in widgit.


We often have groups of children gather in front of the computer for work on widgit as it is also a great way to learn English
 Widgit study_0008-w
In this picture Lopamudra Mullick our new Associate Director is working with Ganga helping her use her foot on the keyboard.  Lopa has figured out that Ganga loves pretty dresses, fancy shoes, lipstick.

 This blog post is "all over the place."  I'm leaving in four days for the US for three weeks so I should be working on all the things to be done.  Two days ago I promised myself that if I cleaned my room I could blog.  I didn't get it done and I've broken the promise. I'm blogging anyway.  But in the meantime we had our Annual General Meeting yesterday, and I'm trying to finish out a brochure to take with me, or at least get the right info to my team in the US working on it.  But looking at pictures makes me think too.  I think about these Children On Their Own, hoping that what we can give them leaves them feeling a bit less alone.

Later today we will take pictures of Gibi, Seema and me.  We really have become a strong team.  The addition of an Associate Director and now also a Chartered Accountant makes for a stronger base than we have had before.  This year our Audit is done and approved and we will be finishing our applications for Society renewal and Social Welfare renewal within this week.


I only hope our girls can trust that they are not on their own now, but I can't know.  The younger one here still experiences me as the center of her universe.  The older one looks for security and approval.  I think one of the most important things we give them is eye contact, smiles, enjoyment of their accomplishments and defeats, a sense of specialness.  And they are right.  They have each other, another gift of Shishur Sevay.






Another Word for Orphan is _____BLANK_______.

Words, names, labels… I'm working on a brochure for Shishur Sevay, with a deadline of one week.  I need to get it done and out.  I'm slow because I keep getting lost in pictures, and memories.  "My kids are sooooo cute; I must use this picture too."  I'm slowed down by the work of honing our message, like sculpture.  I start with the big blob of clay and carve and carve, put back some pieces, carve more.  It's taking me a long time as I work on the words related to disabilities.  I found a wonderful helpful site: Kathie Snow writes of People First Language, namely seeing the person before the disability.  The terminology changes over time, because it is an attempt to change attitudes, and sometimes the new terms become infected with the negative attitudes and so we work again to find words to correct the problem.  It's a critical process, even in its evolution.

I have not had to spend any time assessing the right terms for orphan, because there is only one that I know of, namely orphan.  It's a negative term; it evokes pity; it implies suffering, poverty, illiteracy.  My girls HATE the word.  One day they came home and asked, "Why do they call us orphans?  We have a mother; we live in a house! We are not poor."  They are trying to say that orphan doesn't define them, that it is not a single identity.  But there is no vast literature about other words. 

The definition of orphan often depends on the purpose of assigning the label.  UNICEF has divided orphans into groups depending on whether children lost one parent or two.  Thus there are single orphans and double orphans.  A single orphan can be an maternal or paternal orphan. This work came out of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and an attempt to categorize children for assigning services. 

Orphan in the NGO world is often used very broadly.  I spent a number of years visiting orphanages in West Bengal.  I worked closely with one for several years.  One year I brought my younger daughter to see what I was doing.  She had heard so much about this place.  When we arrived there were only about 15 girls instead of the 150+ girls usually there.  It seemed deserted.  The director told us, "The government hasn't given us food money so I sent them all home."  I asked, "HOME????"  She told me that only a few were kept back because their families were too far away.  Cici turned to me, "Fake?"  Yes, it is fake as an orphanage.  What it is, and what most such places are, is a hostel for poor children.  The children are housed there and sent out to school.  It's an important service, but it is NOT an orphanage.

I seem to have lots of stories about orphans.  I visited a new orphanage, one just starting.  I asked about orphans.  He said, "I only take orphans if their parents are willing to sign them over to me until 18."  To him there was no contradiction.  Orphan, poor, single parent… all the same.  In each of these places, an organization asking about numbers of orphans would get inflated numbers.  I'm not sure it would occur to anyone to look more deeply.  Or, the census of the home would be taken and since the place is listed as an orphanage, all the children would be assumed to be orphans.

I have another orphan story.  Adoptees often visit us at Shishur Sevay, especially if they are from Kolkata.  An adoptee came who wanted to visit one of Mother Teresa's Homes.  We wanted to go because the mother of two children I sponsor was working there.  Gibi knew some people there too.  This home had a section for disturbed women, and a separate area for orphan children.  We visited both.

The orphan ward was a large area up on the second floor, with cribs almost wall to wall.  Forty children about 2-4 years were in separate cribs.  It was afternoon, rest time, and most were quiet.    I asked about these particular children, why they are there.  "They are sick, so we take care of them."  I was surprised because they didn't look sick.  I've been on plenty of pediatric hospital wards.  Then I asked, "Do they get any education?"   I was thinking about the pre-school type of teaching.  I was told, "No, they aren't here long enough."  I learned that the children stay 3-4 months and that they come to be given nutritious food and then sent home to their families.  I thought about what a four month separation from family meant to a toddler.  I thought about all the volunteers who come and get attached to these "motherless children".  (I guess I just found one other term for orphan — motherless child).  Our visiting adoptee was present for all this discussion.  I was surprised then to read her report of her trip, that the high point was being with the orphans at Mother Teresa's.  It just doesn't click for people.  An orphan with parents is still an orphan, such is the power and imagery of the word orphan.

I have another orphan story.  Cici and I visited Dakinishwar, a Kali temple just North of Kolkata.  Roaming children approach visitors, hands outstretched, begging for money.  "We are orphans.  We have no mother or father."  This day I started to chat with one of the boys, maybe 8-10 years.  I can't remember exactly what I said.  I do remember that Cici was terribly embarrassed by what I was doing and stood at some distance.  I asked the boy, "you go to school?"  I knew he didn't.  I asked where he lived, just chatting… and then I asked, "What does your father do?"  "He has a rickshaw."  I went on, "And your mother. what does she do?"  "She begs, like this…"  Here we were, the orphan and the foreigner, and he was telling me about his family.  I don't think he realized the contradiction.  He just felt comfortable enough with me to chat, one on one…. Did I give him money before I went on?  Of course.  Is it illegal? I think so.  I know there is a campaign to stop people from giving.  Usually I don't give.  It's complex.  I gave the orphan his wage, a good performance.  But it also gives one pause to think because this was a child with two working parents.  He could have gone to school.  The issues are not simply ones of money.

Even as I write I struggle for alternative words, and I can't really find any.  I think that is because there is no "orphan voice", only others speaking on behalf of orphans, and there are economic implications in the use of the word. I have four children with severe disabilities.  None can talk.  Do they know whether they should be referred to as "disabled" or "with disabilities" or "differently abled" or "special needs?"  No, but they have people around them protecting their interests.  They advocacy groups of themselves, their families, teachers, institutions, all willing to engage in the exercise of finding constructive and non-demeaning terminology.  

Here are some thoughts from the girls, and from me:

I am who I am


Free Agent Children


Children Against the Odds

Children unencumbered

The realities are harsh when I think about it.  My children here were abandoned, dumped, sold, forgotten, left to fend for themselves.  Two of our girls with severe disabilities have closed up earring holes.  Once they had families.  Someone pierced their ears, made them pretty, then dumped them.  The children cannot speak.  They cannot tell us.

One problem with the term orphan, is that it carries shame, as if the child has done something, become something bad — the child carries the crime of the adults. 

"Children of parents who dump them?"  No, not just parents.  To be an orphan in society, means that no one else stepped in.  No relative took responsibility for them.  In fact, their stories are of relatives who sold or dumped them after the death or disappearance of the parents.  I hear stories like, "My mother died and then my uncle took me and my sister to a pond and left us there."  Pretty much, orphans are kids who have nothing, no one.  That's how I define them, no family, no community… adrift until caught, somewhere by someone, for better or worse, more often for worse.

The Economics of "Orphan"

The term orphan is often used for raising funds.  Therefore the wider the definition, the higher the numbers and the greater the funds.  For instance, I always thought of children with one parent as "children of single parents" not maternal or paternal orphans.  A change in definition changes the size of the pool.

Orphan in the adoption world often represents the number of children who "should" be available for adoption.  Broadening the definition evokes more sense of need.  But if "orphanages" are mostly places for poor people to leave their children for education, and where parents may regularly visit, then the use of the term is deceptive.  The numbers are also deceptive. In West Bengal, most institutions will not take a child unless a parent or family member signs them in and agrees to take responsibility for them at 18 years when they are no longer eligible to stay.  In my early years in Kolkata I kept wondering, "where are the orphans?  I couldn't find them."  I was told at that time that they were all in government institutions and that you couldn't get to them.  Sukanya for blog-1368W

Well, we got 12 of them out (by court order, not the scaffolding you see in the picture).  The ones who understand and feel the power of language feel badly being referred to as orphans. They feel the term as, "I must have been so bad my family didn't keep me."  I tell them they are courageous survivors because it takes courage to fight internal and external demons in order to change our lives.  Help me out there!  Help us find words, help them find words….. 


April 2011
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